Dmitri Shostakovich: The Fate of the Artist after Revolution

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich is the first-rate composer of the 20th century. He was born on 25th of September, 1906, in St. Petersburg, into a cultured family. His father worked as an expert at the Board of Weights and Measures, and his mother was a professional pianist. Naturally, it was she who became the first teacher of music for the little Mitya Shostakovich. His father was also an amateur of music. He sang well, and home concerts would sometimes be arranged at the Shostakoviches’ flat. Eminent scientific and artistic figures would visit this welcoming home, for example, a well-known painter, B. M. Kustodiev. Hearing “The tale of tsar Saltan” by N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov at an opera house left an indelible impression on the composer-to-be. After this, he firmly decided to devote himself to music.

In 1916 Dmitri Shostakovich started to attend a gymnasium. Simultaneously, he attended a school of music.

Shostakovish’s childhood and boyhood fell on the time of another mess in the Russian history. This time, the mess spilled over into the Communist Revolution. These events are sure to have been heavily discussed in the family. Mitya did not keep aloof, either. His earliest musical compositions came as a response to the social upheavals boiling up around. In 1914, after the onset of World War I, he composed a piano piece, “The soldier”; in 1917, after the February revolution, “The hymn to freedom”, and in 1918, after the October revolution, “The funeral march in memory of the victims of the revolution”.

In 1919, the adolescent Shostakovich showed his compositions to the director of the St. Petersburg-turned-Petrograd Conservatoire A. K. Glazunov, and the latter gave high praise to them. That same year, Shostakovich entered the Conservatoire. There, he studied composition under the guidance of M. O. Steinberg (Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil and son-in-law), while L. V. Nikolayev was his piano teacher. By the way, the famous pianists-to-be M. V. Yudina and V. V. Sofronitsky also took classes from Prof. Nikolayev at the time.

In 1922, Dmitri’s father died. To financially support his family, he had to make some money by working as a film scorer at one of Petrograd’s cinemas.

For the graduation from Conservatoire Shostakovich submitted his 1st symphony. At the same time, he kept on practicing the piano. In 1927, he took part in the Chopin competition in Warsaw, where he was awarded an honorary diploma. Along with Chopin’s pieces, Shostakovich performed there his own sonata, by which he attracted the attention of one of the jury members, the celebrated conductor and composer Bruno Walter. The latter asked him to play some more of his compositions, and Shostakovich played him fragments of his symphony. The master liked it very much and asked Shostakovich to send him a score. Later that year, the symphony was successfully premiered in Germany and, the next year, in the USA, with L. Stokovsky as a conductor. Besides, a gramophone record of the symphony performance was issued. As a result, Shostakovich became famous.

The composer’s youth coincided with the early years of the Soviet regime which saw some respite from Revolution, while the inertia of pre-revolutionary culture was still substantial. The creative intelligentsia was finding comfort in the hope that everything would settle down and limit itself to the revolution in art. That time was noted for considerable freedom and variety of cultural activities. Various foreign cultural figures would visit Russia, among them, the composers B. Bartók, P. Hindemith, and A. Berg (the latter’s opera “Wozzeck” was staged in Petrograd-turned-Leningrad).

Shostakovich had a good opportunity to familiarize himself with the latest trends in music. Assisting him here was his friend, musicologist I. I. Sollertinsky. Thanks to the latter, Shostakovich, in particular, got to know the works by G. Mahler, under whose influence he remained to the end of his days. However, Mahler’s influence on Shostakovich had to do rather with the worldview, and would hardly show outwardly.

After graduation from conservatoire, his compositions displayed a shift from a comparatively traditional musical language towards daring stylistic experiments. His music was becoming more and more complex and hard to perceive by an unprepared listener. However, showing through this seeming complexity were the principles laid down by A. S. Dargomyzhsky and M.P. Mussorgsky who had stood up for “truth” in music. Such a “love for truth” often runs counter to the habitual “beauty” in formulating musical material and results in the laws of classical harmony being infringed. Besides, music by the early Shostakovich contains a good deal of mischief and even hooliganism, abounding with parodies and even mockery of classical models. In that period of time, such his compositions came out as a satirical opera, “The nose”, 1st piano sonata, the cycles “The aphorisms” and “The 24 preludes”, the ballets “The golden age” and “The bolt”, a vocal cycle, “Six romances on lyrics by Japanese poets”, and also a number of eccentric pieces for theatre and cinema.

From the late 1920s, the cause of Communist Revolution started in 1917, was resumed. The “Developing Matter” continued Its triumphant procession through the fates of the people. Despite Lenin’s assurances, It did prove to be an image of God, Which any great philosophical Truth turns out to be in the end. This implies the emergence of a new, “materialist” religion, with the incarnation of a “materialist” God, Who was to be praised and made sacrifices to.

Shostakovich could not but feel the above “resumption”. He found himself in an ambiguous position, which for him, as well as for many other Russian post-revolutionary artists, was fraught with the formation of a completely split personality. On the one hand, Shostakovich, having lived under tsarist regime and having tasted its “delights”, was still cherishing illusions about Revolution, the goal of Which was declared to be the “liberation of Man”. So, the expectation of life after Revolution being better was quite natural. But, contrary to expectations, life was getting worse. The logic of Revolution’s development proved different from what the Bolsheviks believed it to be, and Man as Such was not the point at issue here.

The composer made concessions. Without victimizing the originality (and sometimes, eccentricity) of his musical language, he started to give his compositions the “right” names, linking them to the “present situation and the tasks”. Thus, his 2nd symphony was titled “To October”, and his 3d symphony, “The 1st of May”. To make it sound more convincing, both symphonies included choral numbers containing the respective glorifications – so that there could be no doubt of the artist’s devotion to the cause of the proletarian revolution. But this proved not enough.

In 1936, Stalin was present in person at the Bolshoi theatre, where Shostakovich’s latest opera “Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk district” was on. After that, an article appeared in the newspaper “Pravda” entitled “Muddle instead of music” in which the music of the opera was characterized as “rude, primitive, and vulgar”, while Shostakovich himself was declared to be a “formalist”. Later that year, another “Pravda” article lambasted Shostakovich’s ballet “The limpid stream” for “incorrectly” displaying peasant life on the collective farm.

In 1937, the mass terror in the country reached its climax. Among others, arrested and shot was Marshal Tukhachevsky, who had played the violin well enough, and with whom Shostakovich and his friend Sollertinsky would make music. Taking account of the situation in the country, when even representatives of creative professions could not feel secured against being shot, Shostakovich suspended rehearsals of his 4th symphony. He started to write simple and accessible film music instead. The genre of parody had never been alien to Shostakovich, so his parody of simplicity turned out to be quite successful. The “naive” Stalin took it at its face value and gave credit to the artist’s “improvement”. Shostakovich, however, having dulled the leader’s vigilance and drawn necessary “stylistic” conclusions, made up his mind to come forward with his 5th symphony.

Shostakovich’s 5th symphony was premiered in 1937. Written as an imitation of the best patterns of the genre, it evoked an apparent approval on the part of the Leader. The symphony was spoken of as a “constructive and creative response of the Soviet artist to fair criticism” and even as a “model of socialist realism in symphonic music”. This time, the parties seemed to be satisfied with each other. Shostakovich was given a position “at court” – he was allowed to teach composition at the Leningrad, then Moscow conservatoire.

But that was a compromise. And Shostakovich could not but realize the entire precariousness of this compromise. His sensitive nature could not but suggest that what he was really being asked for – so far rather gently – was to bow down to an Idol, and that he was expected to offer “songs of Stalin”, and not at all symphonies. And yet, Shostakovich was too large-scale a figure to stoop to sheer servility. He firmly decided to act within the framework of the compromise reached, that is, write “light” music for common people, and “serious” symphonic pieces, for the elite. For himself, however, he left the realm of chamber music, where he could safely give himself up to his thoughts and continue his creative quest. It was exactly when he composed his 1st string quartet.

Shostakovich responded to the events of the 1941-1945 Patriotic War with his 7th symphony that was enthusiastically received virtually by all. It came as a symbol of mutual understanding and consolidation of the entire Russian people in face of the common threat. It is also during the war that Shostakovich’s 8th symphony was written, called forth by the same horrible events. In it, Shostakovich patently lets himself go, and the symphony remains unsurpassed in expressing those ghastly emotions. Although there is some timid, innocent light struggling through in the end of the symphony, but a full-fledged optimistic finale proper was lacking there. This, too, could not escape the attention of some watchful “well-wishers”.

The composer was getting quite “out of hand”. His next, 9th symphony, instead of being an expected “majestic hymn to victory”, turned out to be a “kind of bagatelle with equivocal contents”, with an openly scoffing finale. A suspicion crept in that the enemy for Shostakovich was not Nazi Germany, but someone else… Maybe, it was the Soviet regime?

In the meantime, Stalin and his entourage, having done with the external enemy, turned their eyes on the internal one. They were impatient to continue the cause of the proletarian revolution in one, “separately taken”, country. In 1948, the notorious resolution of the CPSU Central Committee “Concerning V. Muradeli’s opera “The great friendship” came out, in which Shostakovich, as well as some other Soviet composers, were accused of formalism, bourgeois decadence, and groveling before the West. Besides, that was the time of fighting against “cosmopolitism”, and Shostakovich, unfortunately enough, had just written a song cycle “From the Jewish folk poetry”. As a result, Shostakovich’s 8th and 9th symphonies were banned, while he himself was declared “unfit for his profession” and dismissed from his job.

The composer again went on defensive. He hid into the desk drawer his already written 1st violin concerto and made a living out of writing film music. Also, he wrote a cantata, “The song of the forests”, devoted to the post-war restoration. At the same time, Shostakovich thumbed his nose behind their backs by writing another, satirical, cantata, “The anti-formalist rayok”, where the Soviet rulers were boldly derided, including the “dear and beloved great Leader”, Who figured there as “comrade Yedinitsyn”. As to “The song of the forests”, Shostakovich was awarded another Stalin prize for it. As to the “Rayok”, however, it, thank God, remained unknown to the general public until the right time.

In 1950, Shostakovich visited Leipzig, Germany. Under the impression of the trip he composed his “24 preludes and fugues”, as tribute to the great Cantor.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich gets a temporary respite. Now he had a chance to make his compositions once written into the desk drawer public. Also, he composed his 10th symphony, in which he, without worrying about consequences, gave himself up to the reflections of what he had been through. During that period of time, many of his other works, written in various genres, came out, including “The festive overture”, the operetta “Moscow, Cheryomushki”, and 11th symphony “The year 1905”. The impression is that the composer had, after all, learned to combine the relative simplicity of the musical language with the profundity of the contents.

But the respite did not last long. The country’s new leadership took pains to make Shostakovich their mouthpiece. They argued that the communist party had changed dramatically for the better by then. Mass repressions and the personality cult had been condemned. The communist religion – yes, it stayed on, but now it came forward with the “right” God, Who was not the existing Leader, but the “ever alive” Lenin. So, Shostakovich was supposed to prove by personal example his devotion to the cause of Revolution and help the Party lead the people to the radiant Future.

Shostakovich was not tortured, neither was he threatened. He was only “asked”. But his nerves failed him. He did everything he was asked to do. He joined the communist party. He placed himself at the head of the Union of Soviet Composers. He would sign open letters whatever he would be palmed off. He would deliver “right” speeches. He wrote his propaganda 12th symphony, which he titled “The year 1917” and dedicated to Lenin. And “of the world’s worthless children, the most worthless he may be”.

In the meantime, Shostakovich was entering the time of his life when man was meant to think about his soul. 12th symphony was, perhaps, his last concession to the authorities. Of course, he was dualized, bowed-down, badgered, and sunk into lies. In words, he kept on worshipping the Idol, but as far as his music was concerned, from now on he would never give an inch.

This entire spectrum of emotional experience was most vividly expressed in Shostakovich’s autobiographic 8th string quartet, to which he gave an informal, “humorous” subtitle, “In memory of the author.” As the quartet’s leitmotif there appears the composer’s monogram DSCH, which intertwines here with the themes of his earlier composed pieces, as well as those by Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Also Russian revolutionary songs and Jewish melodies can be heard here, and even Beethoven’s transfigured theme of Fate that is “knocking at the door” (this time, the Fate acquires historically concrete and completely irreparable definiteness, it is the NKVD).

At the premier of his 14th symphony devoted to the death theme, Shostakovich, although nobody had asked him for it (or, maybe, asked?), climbed up the platform and, in his characteristic manner, stumbling over his words, started to justify himself: “Please, don’t get me wrong. I meant quite well. Actually, I wanted to glorify life”. To substantiate his paradoxical train of thought, he, as appropriate, resorted to citing the classics – this time it was the pro-communist writer Nikolai Ostrovsky, namely, his famous monologue, after the uttering of which the hero decided not to commit a suicide: “Man’s dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the liberation of mankind”.

Shostakovich’s “escapade” produced a painful impression on the public. In reality, all this had nothing whatsoever in common with what his symphony was all about. On the other hand, the audience now became more adequately prepared for listening to Shostakovich’s, let’s get it straight, tortuous music.

Dmitri Shostakovich passed away on August 9th, 1975. Let us bow our heads in memory of this martyr of art, whose lot fell to create at the time, when art was not just unneeded; it was impossible.


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